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Camera bluff

Occupational hazards in Operation Filmmaker
By PETER KEOUGH  |  June 17, 2008
3.5 3.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Operation Filmmaker

Operation Filmmaker | Written and Directed by Nina Davenport | with Muthana Mohmed, Liev Schreiber, Tobey Maguire, Peter Saraf, Dwayne Johnson, David Schisgal, and Alberto Bonilla | Icarus Films | 92 Minutes
Even as critics and moviegoers alike have scorned the surge of movies related to the War on Terror and Iraq, Nina Davenport has quietly been making illuminating, fair-minded, and entertaining films on these topics. In Parallel Lines (2004), after the attack on the World Trade Center, she drives cross-country from Los Angeles to New York, talking to ordinary citizens along the way. What she learns doesn’t jibe with the preconceptions on either side of the political spectrum.

Her wickedly ironic and often moving Operation Filmmaker examines the Iraq War through the experience of a young Iraqi wanna-be filmmaker. He’s the debacle’s perfect metaphor, minus the IEDs. Well, maybe not so perfect — as the film slyly suggests, the folly of confusing reality with symbols and turning it into a projection of one’s own world view is not limited to the architects of Bush’s foreign policy.

Maybe it was such a symbol that Liev Schreiber saw when he spotted Muthana Mohmed in an MTV video. Standing by the ruins of his Baghdad film school at the tail end of “Shock and Awe,” Mohmed grins irresistibly and explains his plight as an aspiring director without resources who’d love to go to Hollywood and meet Angelina Jolie. “I felt guilty and intrigued,” Schreiber tells Davenport. “We bombed his school . . . ” Schreiber was about to film his directorial debut, Everything Is Illuminated. Here was a golden opportunity to make it up, in a small way, to the Iraqi people, and spread the enlightenment of Hollywood to their culture. So he bought Mohmed a ticket to the Czech Republic, where his film was shooting, so Mohmed could do . . . something. Among Mohmed’s tasks: preparing lunch for the producer, Peter Saraf. As a PA explains the requisites of a vegan meal, Mohmed stares incredulously into the camera and says, “What the fuck?” Even an assignment to edit a gag reel of bloopers strikes him as menial. His benefactors are not impressed — perhaps they were expecting to be greeted with flowers.

Saraf analyses the situation in retrospect. “We had this high-concept idea, with the movie being about two young people and a cultural divide, and here we have these Jewish filmmakers and this Iraqi . . . ” But life is not high-concept, and both parties ended up feeling used. When Mohmed asks for money and help after his visa expires, they reply, haven’t we given you enough? Disingenuous, perhaps, given the publicity (including stories in the New York Times Magazine and Entertainment Weekly) the stunt has reaped. (Mohmed does skew the spin by blurting to the media, “I love George Bush!”)

So the Illuminated people wrap and cut Mohmed loose in Prague. He lands a gig on the set of Doom (Davenport’s cuts from the movie’s gory special effects to news footage of Baghdad carnage are apt) and makes a pal of star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who also sees his “story” as a formulaic feel-good-movie pitch (“ . . . though oppressed by Saddam, he still manages to enjoy American films!”).

In the end, the only one left for Mohmed is Davenport herself, who gets involved by offering analysis and advice and finally money in what turns out to be a weird co-dependent relationship. She recognizes the error of turning Mohmed into an image reflecting one’s guilt, prejudices, and political agenda, but she also points out his complicity in that process, the way he’s manipulated the deluded intentions of those helping him and refused to take responsibility for himself. In short, the quagmire, with no end in sight.

Related: Cinema of Shadows, Feel-good movie of the summer, Faithless Rendition, More more >
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